Kharga Cultural Museum
For an overview of antiquities found in Kharga and Dakhla Oases, nothing could be better than a visit to the recently constructed Kharga Museum, one of the latest in the Egyptian Ministry of Culture’s regional museums plan. Built from local bricks to echo the style of early Christian architecture seen at Bagawat, the museum houses artefacts ranging from the Egyptian Prehistoric Period right through to the Islamic Era.
The displays are located on the first two of the building’s three floors, bringing to life the historical human journey through the deserts of Egypt. On the first floor the collection includes items such as prehistoric tools, ostrich eggs and many other artefacts found in the Western Desert, indicating the presence of man here from the earliest times. Many of these items have been found by members of the Dakhla Oasis Project during their excavations over the past decades and well-displayed with the help of the Royal Ontario Museum’s Kharga Prehistory Project, complete with hand-printed object labels in Arabic and English.
In Pharaonic times, the oases were important provinces, with large settlements, since they were Egypt’s front line of defence against invaders from the west and south. Many funerary items from pharaonic tombs are displayed, including outer parts of the Dynasty VI tomb of Ima-Pepi and a false-door stela of Khent-Ka, also from the Old Kingdom, which take pride of place near the entrance. These important pieces were discovered by the French Mission in at Balat in Dakhla Oasis. Khent-Ka was Governor of the Oasis during the Sixth Dynasty and his restored mastaba tomb can be visited at Qila el-Da’ba in Dakhla. This limestone false door contains the earliest reference yet found to the word for oasis, wahet.
A small but beautiful double Statue of Ima Pepi, ‘Governor of the Oasis’ and his wife was found in Balat. Also on the first floor there are a few cases containing sarcophagi and mummy masks, including a Graeco-Roman sarcophagus of a lady constructed from painted sycamore wood, found at Labekha by the French Mission. A collection of Graeco-Roman cartonnage mummy masks, which were placed over the face of the deceased, were also painted and often gilded, providing a colourful display.
Some of my favourite items in the museum include three human-headed lion sphinxes found at Deir el-Hagar Temple in Dakhla. These are unusual Roman statues and unlike most other Egyptian sphinxes in that two of them are in an upright crouching position. They have human features and one of them is a female with wings.
In glass cases around the walls of the ground floor there are many collections of smaller objects discovered in the New Valley. One display contains a beautiful group of ba-birds found during excavations by the French Mission at Dush. These tiny colourful wooden birds were buried with the deceased with the purpose of representing the five parts of his soul in order to keep it intact on his journey to the afterlife.
Roman presence in the Western Oases is represented most of all, especially in the form of glass, ceramics and coins found in excavations by the many teams who have worked here in recent years. One of the most exciting finds is from Ismant el-Kharab in Dakhla Oasis, where the Canadian Mission, directed by Professor Tony Mills discovered a set of wooden ‘notebooks’, known as the Kellis Wooden Panels or codices.
Made from blocks of locally-grown acacia wood these important documents are the earliest complete ‘bound’ books ever to be found, dating from the 360s CE. Even the binding string in some cases was still intact. They were written in black ink, mostly in Greek, with some Coptic, and contain lists of accounts and payments in kind by tenant farmers during Roman times. They also give details of marriage contracts and letters, giving us tremendous insight into productivity and everyday life in the oases.
There are several ostraca (pottery sherds used as writing material) which also give important details of daily life in the oases. One in particular is an unfinished private letter from two persons called Psumenais and Kanah, to a man who seems to be a monk called Phibamon from Tamou. On the verso where it starts, the senders inform the recipient not to sent the tremission (golden coin) by someone called Ounouref who they have used before because they don’t seem to trust him. Instead, send it by someone called Thomas. They ask the recipient (on recto) to send something (the tremission itself?) and they will come south and give it to a man called Porme.
As well as the Kellis notebooks, in the second ground floor room there are wooden pens, pen cases and an ink stand from Kharga that are preserved in remarkable condition. Wooden carpentry and woodworking tools from Graeco-Roman Dakhla also make an impressive display. Medical instruments, cosmetic materials, coins, jewellery and tiny pottery and faience shabtis are displayed in other cases.
The second floor houses Christian and Islamic artefacts from the oases, from the 3rd century onwards, including many religious items as well as articles of cultural interest from the more recent heritage of the region. Artefacts include textiles, icons, pottery and ceramics, books and coins. On loan from the Coptic Museum in Cairo there are 18th century wooden painted icons depicting the Virgin Mary with the infant Jesus, and another with the universal motif of the martyr Mari Girgis (St George) killing the Dragon.
A whole room is devoted to silver, plates, tablecloths, and other items from the Manial Palace in Cairo. Many other Islamic cultural artefacts are displayed including several coin collections. There are also many folk items which reflect the customs and traditions of the New Valley.
Kharga Heritage Museum is situated in the centre of el-Kharga, on Sharia Gamal Abd el-Nasser and is open daily from 8.00am to 4.00pm. Entrance to the museum costs EFP 30.